Evil as Privation and Accident: Aquinas, Tolkien, Hart

In this decade-old blog article, Jonathan McIntosh reflects on the relationship between the Good and evil. He brings into the conversation Neoplatonism, St Thomas Aquinas, J.R.R. Tolkien, and David Bentley Hart.

A related contrast is one that has been drawn recently by Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. Against what he perceives to be the optimistic, totalizing, evil-is-necessary-for-the-greater-good theodicies common to both Reformed Protestant theology (e.g., Calvin) and Enlightenment rationalist philosophy (e.g., Leibniz), Hart posits what he finds in the New Testament to be “a kind of ‘provisional’ cosmic dualism,” according to which this “present evil world” is a realm

ruled by spiritual and terrestrial ‘thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers’ (Col. 1:16; cf. 1 Cor. 2:8; Eph. 1:21; 3:10), by ‘the elements (stoicheia) of the world’ (Gal. 4:3), and by ‘the prince of the power of the air’ (Eph. 2:2), who—while they cannot ultimately separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:38)—nevertheless contend against us…

In some ways, incidentally, this is basically the two positions Shippey finds juxtaposed and ultimately unreconciled in Tolkien’s fiction: an optimistic monism reducing all evil to a form of relative non-being existing within an all-encompassing cosmic order on the one hand, and a dualism granting evil its own alien, irreducible ontological status on the other (though Hart sees this dualism as only “provisional” and therefore temporary and not absolute, a qualification that, as we shall see, likewise has important applications for understanding Tolkien).(While this tension is indeed present within Tolkien’s writings, as stated the problem fails to appreciate what I argue elsewhere to be Tolkien’s own profound scholastic subtlety in exploiting the conceptual possibilities within an otherwise Thomistic metaphysics of creation and evil to overcome this antithesis in an even more original synthesis.)

McIntosh also introduces us to a word I’ve never encountered before—ponerology. Today’s challenge: work this word into your conversation today.

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1 Response to Evil as Privation and Accident: Aquinas, Tolkien, Hart

  1. Counter-Rebel says:

    I had some ideas I wanted to share. First, compatibilism is not the same thing as soft determinism. All soft determinists are compatibilists, but not all compatibilists are soft determinists. A compatibilist may take the position that free will is compatible with both determinism and indeterminism, and some may think free will requires at least one indeterministic choice. This, I think–and this is my second point–is the key to how universalism and free will could both obtain. Imagine a child has an indeterministic choice between putting his or her hand on the hot stove or giving their uncle a hug, and they choose the former. Later on, the child is in a similar situation, but this time, because of the memory of the pain, they deterministically choose to hug the uncle. Because the memory of the pain was freely acquired, the choice is deterministic yet still free. This could be how the damned are saved eventually. The memory of the bad consequences of [indeterministically chosen] rebellion makes it so that the next time they’re presented with the opportunity for heaven, they deterministically choose heaven.

    This form of compatibilism saves us from 1. Couldn’t people just keep on indeterministically rejecting heaven forever? and 2. If compatibilism (the soft determinism kind) is true, then God is the ultimate cause of heinous evils.

    Why would God allow this type of freedom? First, perhaps it’s metaphysically necessary that conscious agents make at least indeterministic choice (this seems plausible to me). Indeterministic freedom is sometimes referred to as having the liberty of indifference. Whether they choose good or evil, they won’t be indifferent anymore. Second, maybe God sees indeterministically-chosen heaven as a great good worth the possible evil, even if deterministically-chosen heaven is acceptable.

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